Since Nicola Tesla developed the notion of alternating current, arguably more cultural change has occurred worldwide than in all of our collective human saga. In examples ranging first from electric lighting, to radio, to television, to personal computing and now onto the proliferation of non-location based networked communities, homo sapiens has now entered a world where virtual presence has become a viable alternative to what the Finnish in the late 1990’s often referred to as “flesh meets”.
In 1990, video/telecommunication artist Ulysses Jenkins and his multimedia/music group “The Othervisions Art Band” performed at EZTV as part of a month-long series programmed by guest curators Electronic Café International’s Sherrie Rabinowitz and Kit Galloway (ECI).
It featured a live videophone communication between The Othervisions Art Band at EZTV West Hollywood, CA and The Bonnie Burnette Quartet at ECI in Santa Monica, CA.
The Othervisons Art Band reflected the rich diversity of cultural contributions made by communities often under-represented in the arts-based practice of 1980′s mainstream American society.
Ulysses, a professor at University of California, Irvine, first had his video/music art work presented at EZTV in 1983 in a program featuring “Music is the Weapon”, a documentary on legendary Nigerian musician/activist Fela Kuti. Professor Jenkins also performed at EZTV in 1988 with the music/media group “Primal Synthesis”. For that event, artist Daniel Martinez designed a poster based on his own photography.
By 1990, Jenkins and ECI already had a long-standing history together dating back to the seminal “Electronic Café” project in conjunction with the 1984 LA Olympics. They were among the very early adopters, investigating the emerging potentials of low-cost technology for transmitting visuals and sound to other similarly equipped art spaces.
ECI’s space at 18th Street Arts Center, which began in 1989, was among the seminal art spaces for introducing new public audiences to the emerging networked possibilities.
Other important groups by the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, most notably LA ACM SIGGRAPH, were also experimenting and demonstrating these creative possibilities. For example, “SigKidz”, according to LA ACM SIGGRAPH’s Chair Emeritus Joan Collins, was conducted at EZTV on February 26, 1983, a year and a half before ECI’s Olympic project.
SigKidz, which became an on-going art & technology project for many years with SIGGRAPH, was an experiment in which early digital drawing tablet-enabled computers, were distributed to arts students at high schools in several states. These schools were connected by a pre-World Wide Web version of the Internet. The student artists could collaborate together on a digital artwork in real time from their multiple locations. Digital drawing tablets, in industrial development for several years prior, had first began usage at EZTV in 1983 when artist Cerina Croft collaborated with engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)
JPL had a long-standing history of experimentation and innovation in computer arts stemming back to the seminal collaborative investigations and developments between artist David Em and computer scientist Dr. James Blin.
Although there were artists throughout the world understanding the emergent possibilities of online and telephonically-based production, locally, it was rare in Los Angeles throughout the 1980’s to see such projects realized.
Ulysses Jenkins, ECI, SIGGRAPH and EZTV were among the early artists experimenting publicly in Los Angeles with innovations in an art-based practice often referred to, academically, as “telematics”.
Soon dancers, musicians, and poets alike began to see how using telephone technology, coupled with the ability to simultaneously transmit images, would create an expanded audience in multiple locations, sometimes local, and other times, international.
In these earlier decades, telematics art was almost always a ‘point-to-point’ experience, much like a conventional telephone call. The difference, of course, would be that in addition to audio, still images could be also transmitted one at a time. Occasionally, several different locations or ‘nodes’ could be connected at the same time, resulting in a ‘micro-network’ similar to today’s Google+ Hangouts. This differed greatly from today’s ‘one-to-many’ web streaming capability while still giving a feeling of otherwise separate communities being able to ‘broadcast’ (‘narrow-cast’ may be a more accurate description).
Access to the creative use of Internet-based arts projects was an example of what for many years was referred to as ‘the digital divide’. Those individuals with certain elite privileges at major universities or government facilities were able to design and execute their innovative works proximate to the location of mainframe computers, NASA satellites, and the army of advanced engineering and computer programming talent needed for facilitation. Without such rare core collaborative relationships, it was otherwise impossible for such experimental art projects involving high-technology to proliferate. This was beginning to change in the 1980’s when greater access to various hardware and software platforms began to enter the consumer marketplace.
Among the hardware were the early commercially-available videophone technologies developed by companies, such as Atari, and manufactured and marketed by companies such as Panasonic.
Note: I am using the term ‘videophone’ here in respect for the artist’s own description. It should be pointed out that many technology historians, engineers, and digierati prefer the term ‘picturephone’ as they argue the videophone moniker is potentially highly misleading to those unfamiliar with 1980′s hardware capabilities. Almost all such technologies at that time transmitted only still images and not full motion video, as is commonplace in today’s ubiquitous webcams.
The Othervisions Art Band was:
Ulysses Jenkins – vocals, videophone technology and installation:
Michael Delgado – lead guitar
Oscar Del Pinal – bass
Reyes Rodriguez – percussion
Matthew Thomas – ritual sandpainting